Humble bows of apology for my brain’s long absence from the ring! Books have been battled, just in the privacy of my own head. Because it turns out that I am not actually superpowered and can’t translate two full-length novels and eight or so volumes of manga in three months and hang out with all my friends in Tokyo and go to meetings/attend work events and take a week off to travel through the San’in region and publicly battle books on these pages. It’s physically impossible. Which is terrible because I have been reading so many great books that I have been dying to share!
As with pretty much every sojourn in Japan, these pages would have been all manga all the time for the last three months. So much great stuff was released while I was there! Three new est em titles alone! New Atsushi Kaneko! The final volume of my beloved Ekoda-chan! I was also playing catch up with some older titles, finally filling in the blanks of Aoi Hana by Takako Shimura, a series that I was following in the sadly defunct Erotics f. But not being able to get every issue of Erotics f because I am in Canada for the other nine months of the year, I missed some chapters, so I was at the bookstore this year, buying all the tankobon and putting those missing pieces into my brain. I also saw the end of IKKI, the great alternative manga magazine that was publishing Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto (which has moved to Monthly Spirits now. Don’t worry, you’ll get to read the end of it!), Golondrina by est em (which will be finished in tanko form. Don’t worry, you’ll get to read the end of it!), and Futagashira by Natsume Ono (which is apparently moving to the new magazine that will arise from the ashes of IKKI? We will get to read the end of it, right?). Basically, I read a butt-ton of manga over the last three months.
Which is why it’s a bit odd that the first book I’m writing about this year is not a manga, but rather a collection of short stories. Part of the reason for this is that I sent all the books I had read and planned on keeping/writing about back on the slow boat to Canada, so I have none of these fabulous manga at hand to talk about. But mostly, the stories in this collection completely mesmerized me, and they linger in my head. They are the kind where suddenly you remember some tidbit and then turn that little nugget over and over again, trying to pull it apart in a new way for some hidden meaning.
Although I’ve heard Nishi’s name here and there (I run in bookish circles, which may not surprise you), it wasn’t until I got an email from a friend—one who is extremely knowledgeable about modern Japanese literature and whose taste has never before led me astray—asking if I’d read any of her work that I finally headed to the bookstore with her name firmly inscribed on my list. She has written a lot of books, it turns out, but the only one they had in bunko format was Enjo Suru Kimi, and so my choice was made! (I am not the biggest fan of hardcover books because they are not so portable. In Canada, where I do most of my reading at home, this is less of an issue. But in Japan, I do the majority of my reading on the train or out somewhere, so bunko is the way to go unless it is a brand new book that I simply have to read right. now.)
I was hooked from the first line of the first story “Taiyo no Ue” (Above the Sun): “Anata wa taiyo no ue ni sundeiru (you live above the sun).” The line is set off by itself, its own little paragraph, making it all that much more curious. The next paragraph elaborates: Not the sun hard at work up in the sky, but a Chinese restaurant called “The Sun”. Every story in this collection has this off-kilter feel to it. The ground under your feet is always slightly unsteady. Not in an uncomfortable, weird-for-the-sake-of-weird way, though. More like the world can be a slightly off-kilter place sometimes.
I also like the use of the second person in this and a few other stories. It’s not so common in Japanese, similar to English, and so it does enhance that sense of things being not quite right, as well as create an immediacy that’s only aided by the fact that fiction in Japanese is generally written in the present tense anyway. And essentially every story in the collection focuses on women who are somehow outside of society or trying to deal with desires they have that conflict with what is expected of them, which works very well with the out-of-stepness Nishi’s writing style brings to the table.
In “Taiyo”, “you” are a hikikomori, ordering food and clothing and whatever else you might need online while you listen to your landlady/owner of Taiyo sexxing the waiters every afternoon when her husband goes out to read the paper in the park. In “Sora wo Matsu”, a writer finds a cell phone on one of her late-night walks and ends up corresponding via text message with a friend of the owner of the phone, who offers encouragement and support that the writer, living alone and not having any friends, badly needs. “Sora” also has elements of that fantastic that shift the reality of the world you’re reading about, which is something you see in other pieces in Enjo, including the titular story, which could be translated as “You in Flames”.
Two ultra-nerdy, ultra-successful women quit their finance-related day jobs to form a band and seek out the man whose feet are on literally on fire. They hear rumours of him all over town; those who encounter him and treat him amicably seem to earn incredible luck, while those who chase him out of their shops or houses for charring the floors/setting fire to the drapes inevitably encounter some misfortune. But these women aren’t looking for him for luck—they want to feel something.
And it’s this that seems to be the central theme binding these eight stories. The female protagonists are all feeling a lack somehow. Not accepted for who they are, not even knowing how to be who they are, they look outside themselves for some kind of sign, some kind of guidance, some kind of meaning, and find it not in the mundane reality of every day Japan, but perpetually flaming feet or high up in the sky after coming down with “balloon sickness” in “Aru Fusen no Rakka (The Descent of a Certain Balloon)”.
Nishi has such an engaging style, striking a very careful balance between something being slightly off and everything being totally normal. There’s a real beauty in the way she uses words, phrasing things with an unexpected flourish that both fits the stories she writes and transcends them, if that makes any sense. Like the last line of “Taiyo” (don’t worry, I am not spoiling anything here): “Taiyo no ue kara oritekuru. (You will come down from above the sun.)” It’s so simple and yet in the context of the story, it took my breath away and I had to read it again and again. Even reading it again now pulls all kinds of emotion up in me. It’s a rare writer who can stir things up in my heart with a single sentence, so you know everything Nishi’s ever written is going on my list of books to read and hassle publishers to translate into English. (And yes, to hire me to do it.)